Fate versus free will is a common theme in Greek tragedies. In many cases a person who tries to avert their predestined fate will set the pieces in motion that will inevitably lead to that fate. Laius and Jocasta from Oedipus are examples of this. On the other hand, you have characters like Prometheus, and Zeus, who knowingly put their own fates into motion bur want to avoid the consequences. Finally, you have Agamemnon and Cassandra who are resigned to their fates.
In Prometheus Bound Zeus has ordered Hephaestus to bind the titan Prometheus to a rock as punishment for Prometheus giving fire and knowledge to mankind. While Prometheus is bound many of the gods and goddesses, including Zeus go to him in order to learn their futures. Prometheus tells Zeus that Zeus’ son will destroy him. Upon hearing this Zeus strikes Prometheus with a thunderbolt hurtling him into the abyss. In Prometheus Bound the question is not just about determining one’s responsibility for their own fate. In the story the characters seem to lean towards the idea of everything being fated. This is demonstrated by the gods and goddesses going to Prometheus to learn of their futures. This brings to mind two questions if Zeus is a god, how is he bound by fate. The blind seer Tiresias claims that “Even Zeus cannot escape fate.” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound). He obtained the position from killing his father Kronos and defeating the titans and Cyclopes. So he realizes that his position is not secure and that any one of his children could try to usurp the throne just as he has. Zeus secures his fate by punishing Prometheus as Prometheus refuses to give him the information that will prevent him from being overthrown.
Prometheus used free will to disobey Zeus and give fire and the arts to humans. He did this even though he knew he would be punished. This raises the question if you commit an action knowing the consequences of that action, is it still considered fate or is it just the other person exercising their will. I think that if one has any say in how someone will act or how a situation will play out then it is free will. Fate while set in motion by free will is something that the characters do not have any control over. Oedipus in the three Theban Plays is a good example of this.
Oedipus while exhibiting the free will the caused him to leave his home, kill Laius, defeat the Sphinx, marry Laius wife Jocasta, searching for Laius killer and disowning his sons was truly a victim of fate. Jocasta and Laius, who was of the house of Labdacus and was cursed by the gods for his abduction and rape of Chrysippus the son of Pelops. Were told upon Oedipus birth that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In order to prevent this from happening, they had the infant exposed. Oedipus is rescued and raised by the king and queen of Corinth. He is told by the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother. This causes him to leave town in order to avoid this fate and in doing so he inadvertently puts his fate in motion, when he unknowingly killed his father Laius. While one can argue that Oedipus made the choice to go to Delphi and speak to the oracle, he chose to listen to the man in regards to his parents not being his bio-parents, he then chose to leave, he also chose to answer the sphinx riddle and accept Laius widow as his bride and finally he chose to investigate the murder of King Laius that he is responsible for his fate. I disagree with this, because even though he is responsible for his actions, he has no idea the course his actions will take. This is different from Prometheus, who acts in defiance of Zeus and knows that there will be consequences. Oedipus has no idea the consequences of his actions, in fact he continually tries to do the right thing, except when he kills Laius. Later in the plays Oedipus commits the only act that he knows will have a negative effect his family. He disowns both of his sons and refuses to side with either of them in their battle in The Seven Against Thebes. This results in the deaths of three of his children Antigone, Eteocles, and Polyneices.
The line of Laius is not the only family line in Greek tragedy to fate its fate and free will tested due a curse caused by the sins of the father. The house of Atreus was also cursed to such a fate when Tantalus served his son Pelops to the Olympian god. In the Oresteia Aeschylus tells the story of Tantalus descendent Agamemnon. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia "What can I say? Disaster follows if I disobey; surely yet worse disaster if I yield and slaughter my own child, my home's delight, in her young innocence, and stain my hand with blasphemous unnatural cruelty, bathe in the blood I fathered! Either way, Ruin!" (Aeschylus: Agamemnon, 813-814). This shows that he knew that there were going to be repercussions for his decision. He made the choice anyway in order to obtain calm seas in which he and his men could travel safety to Troy. This was a case of being wrong either way. Had he not made the sacrifice his men would have died during the trip, and if he decided not to go to Troy a countless number of Greeks may have lost their lives. When he returned ten years later with his trophy of war Cassandra. Cassandra who knows of both Agamemnon and her own fate does not try to prevent it. She seems relieved at the prospect and even waits patiently for Clytemnestra to finish with Agamennon. Agamemnon is then killed by his wife Clytemnestra, who is angry over Iphigenia’s death and in love with Aegisthus. She kills both Agamemnon and Cassandra. After learning of his father Agamemnon’s death from his sister Electra. Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. This is the moment that fate and free will come to a head with vengeance. For Clytemnestra there has never been a choice, she was going to revenge the death of her daughter on her murderer. Whereas with Orestes he chooses, knowing the truth to kill his mother. The fates terrorize him until he is finally acquitted at trial.
Aeschylus The Oresteia translated by Alan Shapiro and Peter Burian. Oxford UP, 2003
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound and Other Plays Translated by Phillip Vellacott. Penguin, 1961
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics, 1982